Cody Johnson had the light show and tiered stage risers at Pinewood Bowl on Friday.
But the amphitheater in the park could just as well have been a honky tonk that would hold 4,000 people.
After all, honky tonks are the home of “real country music” — and that’s just what the white Resistol cowboy hat-wearing Texan delivered for more than 90 minutes on a perfect night at the bowl.
Johnson and his five-man tore through a set that was heavy on what the former bull rider called “cowboy music,” hitting an early peak with the autobiography of “Dear Rodeo” and an impromptu singalong on “Me and My Kind.”
Name-dropping George Strait in “Where Cowboys Are King” after a couple songs earlier shouting “Do you all still listen to George Jones? I do,” Johnson tipped his musical hat to those who have gone before him, including Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson.
Unlike the Georges, Johnson doesn’t just stand at the mic, strum and sing.
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Instead, when the guitar and fiddle take solos on the up-tempo numbers, he bounds around the stage, playing hard and literally kicking up his heels a la Garth Brooks and another former rodeo rider, the late great Chris LeDoux.
A decade-long veteran of bars such as the Bourbon Theatre, Johnson knows how to put together an engaging set, going from, to choose one example, singing the love ballad “Nothing On You,” then tearing up “Honky Tonk Mood,” before kicking into an edgy version of the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Long Haired Country Boy.”
Movingly, Johnson opened the encore with a stunningly sung, solo acoustic guitar version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” that he dedicated to Kylie Rae Harris, a Texas singer-songwriter who died in an car accident this week.
Those covers left no doubt where Johnson is coming from — and why he’s a traditionalist on his way up.
Preceding Johnson, veteran Mark Chesnutt celebrated his 56th birthday with 50 minutes of classic Texas honky tonk.
That set, superbly played by his seven-man band, was twangy, drenched in fiddle and steel and, on the fast shuffles, well, suffice it to say, Pinewood Bowl could have used a sawdust-covered dance floor.